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teaching:don_t_bother_begging_for_marks

Don't Bother Begging for Marks

I can't stop you from trying to convince me to increase your grade, but I would urge you to consider carefully the arguments you use: there are some requests to which I shall always be, as an old pirate once said, disinclined to acquiesce to your request1) .

Overview: corrections v adjustments

There are two kinds of changes that can be done to your marks: corrections and adjustments.

A correction is what we do when an actual error in grading is pointed out to us. Corrections typically are arithmetic in nature - we didn't add up your mark correctly. The odds of you finding an arithmetic error are extremely low because we double and even triple check everything. You are of course encouraged to check the calculations of your marks yourself because, after all, we're only human.

Not all corrections are trivial. Sometimes, something goes surprisingly pear-shaped and your instructors need to find a proper strategy to address it on two very different fronts: (a) addressing the matter in the current offering of the course, and (b) finding a way to prevent the same thing from happening in future years. Coming up with such strategies can be pretty difficult. In these cases, you will usually be told that some accommodation will be made after the end of classes but before final grades are submitted. This is because the accommodation needs to be done in light of overall performance of a whole class over a semester.

Any other change is not a correction, but rather an adjustment. I don't do adjustments. That is, corrections are necessary because there was some kind of error. Adjustments are grade changes made without evidence of need. If there is no need, then there will be no change. Therefore adjustments are just off.

This doesn't stop students from asking, however. And the requests are, year after year, quite repetitive. Most of this page is dedicated to saving you and me the trouble and time of engaging in meaningless talk by summarizing commonly requested adjustments.

General warnings about adjustments

Here's some adjustments I will never do:

  • Just “bump” your grade up because you were “very close” to passing the course.
  • Let you do extra work to make up for poor or missing grades, except if you (a) received an INComplete grade or (b) have a documented explanation for poor performance that was approved by the appropriate Ryerson Officer (e.g. your Program Director).
  • Change the rules as defined in the course outline to your benefit.
  • Allow non-academic concerns to influence my assessment of your academic skills. (Indeed, it would be unethical for me to do that.)
  • “Bell” the grades. (Interestingly, at least 1/3 of students in my experience who ask if grades will be “belled” don’t even know what that entails….)

Special case: re-grading an exam

If you are convinced that I've graded your exam incorrectly, you can ask for a regrade. To get an exam regraded, you need to write a formal request to the Chair of the Department. You need to explain in that letter specifically what was graded incorrectly, and how your answer is actually correct (by referring to the textbook, course notes, etc.). You cannot, for instance, dispute the number of points you lost (i.e., because you believe your error was not particularly serious) so long as the grading rubric was applied equally to everyone. If the Chair thinks your argument has merit, the Chair will find another professor with expertise in the area to review only that question, using the same marking scheme as was used originally.

Specific Adjustments I will never make

Do not bother to even ask me to change your grade for any of the following reasons. (Yes, many students have proposed these reasons to me over the years.)

You’re just being too hard on us!

Tell that to the people you will injure and the families of those you will kill with your incompetence and negligence. When an engineer gets it wrong, people die. Holding the title of Engineer means that you have been trained and tested to the fullest possible extent, and that you will not get it wrong. Of course, engineers are human, and will occasionally make honest mistakes, but that's all the more reason to be very picky about who we let join the profession and about the nature and quality of the education we expect all engineers to have.

We assess your abilities based on specific “deliverables” that you provide to us. We do this because no matter what anyone else may tell you, there is no other robust, reliable, and consistent way of deciding if we can trust you to do the right thing one you've graduated. And that's what it's all about.

Is it possible to come in and discuss my marks for this term sometime this week or next week?

Not without telling me why. And even then, it's not guaranteed. Odds are, whatever you have to discuss can be dealt with via email. And since I won't change your grade, I don't know what else there is to discuss.

Some students who want to discuss their grades claim they want to understand well where they went wrong so that they can not make those mistakes in the future - when in fact they’re hoping I’ll say or do something that will allow them to successfully appeal their grade. This tactic has not yet worked (reminder: I’ve been teaching since 1989). So go ahead and try; it’ll just be a waste of my time and yours.

Holding midterms during labs isn't fair.

Here's a typical example: As a student that wrote the MEC325 midterm on [the first lab session of the week] I feel as though it is very unfair to administer almost the exact same midterm to different sections on different days. I am at a very big disadvantage going into the midterm with no knowledge of the midterm questions, while the other sections writing on a later day can easily acquire every question on the test. Based on my knowledge the only thing changed was the device for the case study. I don't intend to sound rude but I feel that this is a big issue.

There's a lot to unpack here:

  • We ran the midterms exactly the same way for MEC222, but the student didn't complain about those. Seems inconsistent to me.
  • What you “feel” is irrelevant. Either there is clear evidence of unfairness or there isn't.
  • The tests are demonstrably not “almost the exact same” - so this statement is patently false.
  • Students in later test sections have been demonstrated to not have access to information about the test.
  • While the device of the case study changed, this means that the expected answers are completely different. Again, this is just like in MEC222, where the “only” the object to be drawn was changed.
  • You should know - again from MEC222 - that we do check for variations in grades that are not just statistical noise. There are several simple tests we can perform to do that. If and when we find a variation that is not just noise, we adjust for it at the end of the semester. And you should know that by now.
  • So, again, this type of complaint wastes the student's time writing it and our time reading and responding to it.

I don’t deserve to lose that many marks for [such and such an error].

Really? Since when are you in charge of setting grading policy? We establish grading practices based on decades of experience, our collective knowledge of the curriculum as a whole, and the requirements of the engineering profession and the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board. You are in no position to argue against us on such matters. So don't even try.

I can't afford (financially) to fail.

I know University costs a lot. In fact, it costs too much. Education should be free because it's the single best thing you can do to improve the quality of your life in the long run. Some countries offer free university education but Canada isn't one of them. Philosophy aside, though, the way things are in Canada at least for now is this: it doesn't matter what the cost is to you, our societal obligation is to maintain the quality of our graduates.

In other words, I don't care about your financial problems.

I failed the exam but my overall grade was above 50%, so I shouldn't pass the course?

No, you shouldn't. We know that many students find existing solutions to homework and use those without even trying to understand the material. That's called cheating (e.g., here and here), but while we know this happens generally, we can't prove it in specific cases. If you cheat, you're not learning. If you're not learning, then you won't be able to do good engineering work when you graduate. If you can't do good engineering work when you graduate, people will suffer and die. Exams, tests, and major projects are the only ways we have to make sure you won't kill people.

Also, many instructors are cutting much of the homework from their courses and dumping all those marks into the tests and exams, just because it’s harder to cheat on tests and exams. If you don’t like that, blame the previous generations who cheated like crazy.

The final exam is not the best way to evaluate us.

Really? You seem to be asserting that you know more and better than we do. So, the facts that (a) your instructors have several decades of combined teaching experience, (b) the course design and rules were vetted by several different Ryerson committees and approved at every level, © the course is part of a curriculum certified by the national regulatory body for engineering, and (d) consistent with best practices around the entire frickin’ world - these facts pale in comparison to your god-like omniscience about engineering education?

Do you understand how arrogant you sound making such a claim?

It would be one thing to ask, in a professional tone, about the rationale behind the use of final exams. It's quite another to make a universal categorical statement from a position of false authority - not to mention the inherent conflict of interest you've put yourself in by suggesting that the one assessment you failed is a bad assessment form.

As it happens, exams are an excellent way to evaluate knowledge and skills, especially in huge classes where there simply isn't the time or resources to do better. The research is clear on this point, and you can look it up yourself on Google Scholar. If there were another way that was both accurate and feasible, we would use it. But there isn't.

I tried so hard! I deserve to pass.

Effort is irrelevant; only results matter.

This is not to say that we ignore student effort when we plan our courses. We consider very carefully what we can reasonably expect students to do, and design courses to match those expectations. The expectations we have are not particularly different from those at any other University. Beyond that, however, it's entirely on the student to manage their time and apply themselves as much as necessary to learn the material. I’ve even gone so far as to calculate how many hours you should be studying; if you’re not hitting that minimum, you’re doing it wrong.

Furthermore, engineering education is not just about “book knowledge.” It's also about character. Engineering is hard and risky. One of our jobs is to prepare you to endure heavy workloads, high stress, and significant risks. These are not things you can learn from a book; they are things you learn by doing. If you can't handle the stress in an academic setting, then you will not be able to handle the stress in engineering practice.

So, I don't care about how hard you tried.

You assumed I know how to do [some prerequisite skill], but I've never learned how to do that, and that's why I failed. It's not my fault I failed so I should really pass.

You failed because you did not perform well on the work items that you knew we would use to test your skills. This is entirely on you, not us.

We assume you have had a reasonable high school education. Our entrance requirements are designed to ensure that. If you got in to Ryerson, and if you accepted the letter of offer, then you agreed to having had a sufficient high school education. If it turns out you don't, then that's on you, not me.

Indeed, if it were left entirely up to me, this type of situation would lead to a charge of non-academic misconduct: you attempted to commit fraud by misrepresenting yourself.

I failed the course, and could take it in the Spring semester, but I've booked a trip and will be out of the country. Can you just give me a passing grade instead?

Never gonna happen, for three reasons:

  1. You made a terrible mistake booking a trip during the Spring semester. You need to bear the responsibility and the consequences of that decision. It's not my job to make up for your poor choices.
  2. You didn't earn a passing grade. Why would I ever just give you one?
  3. If you failed the course, then you're not ready to continue with your education. If I give you a passing grade, I'm just setting you up for even more failure later.

So, I don't care about your trip, no matter what the reason for it may be.

I got 43% on the exam. Do you think I may pass the course after adjustments?

I don't know.

Every year, the correction, if any, is different because the anomalies in the grades are different every year. And in any case, telling you if you failed is the same as telling you whether you got an F. An F is a grade. I am not allowed to discuss final grades. Therefore I am not allowed to tell you if you passed or failed.

Furthermore, the corrections we make are not public information.

So even if I did know, I wouldn't tell you.

I think I've failed the course. I've failed this course twice before. That means I'll be expelled from the program. Can you please pass me?

No. Rather, you should take a hint and find something else to do with your life, cuz engineering ain’t it.

I failed the course because I can't draw.

Rudimentary drawing skills are a fundamental engineering skill; it's just as important as physics and calculus. Unless you have a documented disability or other verifiable explanation for poor performance, if you can't draw, then you can't be an engineer.

I did well in everything but the exam. Can't I just write the exam again?

No. That's not how it works in engineering. Or in medicine, or law, or most other professions. Final grades are overall assessments of your performance in the course. To let you rewrite an exam just because you didn't do well in it undermines the entire system we have in place.

Also, giving you alone a second chance would be completely unfair to everyone else in the class.

You're also looking at exams all wrong. An exam is not a single data point among all the marks you get for work done during a semester. An exam is an exhibition of your cumulative learning throughout the semester. Everything else is just practice. So failing the exam really is an indication of not understanding the course material at all.

The exam was too long.

No it wasn't.

Perhaps it was too long for you. Perhaps that's because you didn't prepare sufficiently for it. I and the colleagues I teach with have over 70 years teaching experience - setting exams like this - between us. I myself have taught nearly 7,000 students (as of 2016). We know what we're doing. It’s quite presumptuous of you to think you'd know better than us.

I had six final exams, so I didn't have much time to study; as a result, I failed the course because I failed the exam. Can you help me?

No. All the exam does is test everything you should have learned during the course. If you did well in the rest of the course, then you should have at least passed the exam because it's all the same stuff. If you failed the exam, then clearly you didn't really know the material well enough, and should have spent more time during the semester learning it.

Can't you bend the rules just this once?

You're kidding, right? Do you realize you're asking me to do something unethical? Do you realize just asking me that is a violation of the academic code of conduct? I'll assume you were kidding, or else you'd be in major trouble.

1)
Captain Barbosa, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
teaching/don_t_bother_begging_for_marks.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)